Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Non-Fiction Lesson Plan: Michael Pollan

I adore Michael Pollan. I think he's witty and a smart writer--and I've always enjoyed his approach to the problems he tackles in writing. So if I were to teach a non-fiction lesson, I'd probably teach one of his essays. In fact, I selected "Why Mow" from his book Second Nature because I thought it would be a good one to give students. (If you have a chance, check out any of Michael Pollan's books--he also puts a lot of it up on his website: http://www.michaelpollan.com/)


Jenn Miller

Professing Literature

David Jolliffe

March 28, 2007

Nonfiction Lesson Plan: Michael Pollan, “Why Mow”

Reading Journal: Before reading Pollan’s essay, “Why Mow[1]”, have the students respond briefly (a few sentences) to the following questions: Do you (or your parents) have a front lawn? Is there a specific purpose for your lawn? Do you know anyone without one?

After reading the essay, have the students respond: Does Pollan cause you to think differently about lawns? Why or why not? Do you think lawns are related to being American and our democratic ideology? Why or why not?

Focus: Pollan says, “Every few years a controversy erupts in some suburban community over the failure of a homeowner to mow his lawn…That subtle yet unmistakable frontier, where the crew-cut lawn rubs up against the shaggy one, is enough to disturb the peace of an entire neighborhood; it is a scar on the face of suburbia, an intolerable hint of trouble in paradise” (67).

Provide a lawn case study to students. Example: Gene Hatfield, an artist in Conway, Arkansas, and a former UCA art professor was cited by the City of Conway for violation of a lawn ordinance—in other words, for putting his art out in his front yard instead of maintaining a lawn. The local art community, comprised mainly of UCA art students, took up the cause, declaring the citation an act of an overly controlling government, stifling the expression of art and violating free speech. Eventually, Hatfield and the city came to a truce; he cleaned up his yard and paid a reduced fine, but was allowed to leave some art on display in his yard.

In light of Pollan’s essay, have the students take a moment to respond to this case study. Is the city justified in its treatment of Hatfield, an artist and homeowner? Allow the students to share their responses.

Purpose: To demonstrate the ways a nonfiction essay can give a reader insight into cultural or political issues by examining the traits of an essay—the way an essay can take something as seemingly mundane as lawns and turn it into an examination of American culture.

Overview: We’ll first examine the traits of an essay (defining the genre). Then we’ll look at some of these traits in Pollan’s essay and begin thinking about the upcoming essay assignment.

Business: Do class business here.

Lecture: Discuss features of an essay (as opposed to more structured forms of writing that students are used to): the impetus (jumping point), the organization, the interrogation of knowledge, the narrative persona, digressions, and use of quotations. Students are used to the idea that writing should have a formal pattern (i.e. introduction, body—with three main points—and conclusion), so showing the essay form in opposition may be helpful.

After reviewing the traits of an essay, return back to Pollan and have the students pull these traits from his text. For example, ask the students to write down what they believe the impetus is (lawns/mowing) and then call on a few students to answer. Other questions: Name one adjective that would describe Pollan’s narrative persona. Give one example of where Pollan uses digressions. How does Pollan use quotations? (direct or implied—the first sentence is an allusion to Donne’s “No man is an island”). Does Pollan’s essay strike you as very organized or structured? What is Pollan trying to get at about lawns and American politics/culture? This will hopefully lead to a structured, useful discussion time.

Closure: This lesson is one out of a series in preparation for students to write an essay of their own. For next time, students will brainstorm some starting blocks or an impetus to write an essay (Pollan begins with mowing and ends up examining the cultural implications of lawns). Of course the impetus is only useful in that it allows the writer to wrestle with a deeper idea, so the students will come up with at least three possible jumping points and the idea they wish to explore from that jumping point. (This will allow for feedback on their writing ideas.)

[1] “Why Mow”—excerpt from Second Nature by Michael Pollan, New York: Dell Publishing, 1991.

1 comment:

Kerry said...

Ahh! I have achieved enlightenment on the essay-that-was-not-read! You are brilliant, Ms. Miller, brilliant, my teacher lady! *grins*

Sounds like an interesting read. I remember the art case from UCA. You did a very good job bringing in a practical application to encourage discussion, bringing home the point that literature is an avenue for our personal awareness in contemporary society.